US Pacific summit faces rocky start as island leaders reject offers from Washington

US attempts to strengthen ties with the Pacific Islands suffered a blow on the eve of its historic summit, with the Solomon Islands rejecting a draft US agreement and Micronesian leaders expressing serious concerns over “insufficient” financial aid to the region, leaked documents obtained by the Guardian reveal.

Joe Biden is hosting a number of Pacific leaders in Washington for a U.S.-Pacific Islands summit, which begins Wednesday — the first time Pacific leaders have been invited to the White House for such a meeting.

The summit is an attempt by the United States to strengthen ties with Pacific nations and was widely seen as a response to China’s growing engagement in the region.

However, the US offer to the region caused consternation among Pacific leaders.

A leaked memo, written by the Solomon Islands Embassy in New York, said the country, which signed a controversial security deal with China in April, would not endorse a regional diplomatic deal proposed by the United States. .

“Solomon Islands is not in a position to adopt the declaration this week and will need time to reflect on the declaration and send the declaration back through the Solomon Islands national decision-making process,” reads the note, which was addressed at the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat. , and seen by the Guardian. “Solomon Islands notes that the statement remains under discussion and has not yet achieved consensus and will require further discussion.”

The proposed declaration is being negotiated and the United States hoped it would be adopted by Pacific leaders at the summit this week.

A source involved in the negotiations told the Guardian that Pacific Island leaders were to meet in New York on Tuesday evening to discuss the declaration, but the meeting was postponed by the Solomon Islands delegation.

The 11-point U.S.-Pacific Partnership Statement, a draft of which was seen by the Guardian, commits Pacific nations and the United States to work together “in the face of a worsening climate crisis and geopolitical environment. more and more complex.

The draft differs markedly from the broad regional economic and security agreement that China presented to 10 Pacific countries earlier this year, which was ultimately rejected by Pacific leaders.

China’s deal was incredibly detailed, committing particular amounts of money, programs, and even outlining the number of Chinese art troupes that would be sent to the islands as part of a cultural exchange program.

It would also have seen a massive expansion of China’s involvement in security arrangements in the region, including expanding its training of police forces, building laboratories for fingerprint testing, forensic autopsy, drugs, electronic and digital forensics and strengthening cybersecurity cooperation.

The draft declaration with the United States is much more general, committing to principles of engagement – such as strengthening regionalism in the Pacific, tackling the climate crisis, promoting economic growth, protecting of the Blue Pacific and the maintenance of peace and security – rather than defining specific policies and promises.

“American economic aid is insufficient”

The first point of the draft declaration details the United States’ commitment to “the expeditious and successful completion of Free Association Agreement negotiations with the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.”

The United States has Compact of Free Association agreements with these Pacific nations, which obligate the US government to provide them with financial assistance in return for defense responsibilities. Agreements are currently being negotiated, with the Marshall Islands and Federated States of Micronesia compacts set to expire next year.

In the draft statement, the United States called these pacts “one of the cornerstones of U.S.-Pacific cooperation for nearly four decades” and pledged to resolve the negotiations in a manner “that addresses and responds adequately to the priority needs of these three nations”.

However, the Guardian also obtained a leaked letter sent by the ambassadors of Palau, the Federated States of the Marshall Islands and the Marshall Islands to Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific and the one of Biden’s most senior foreign policy advisers. , raising concerns about what was offered by the United States.

“The assistance currently offered is inconsistent with our islands’ contributions to regional security and stability, which also supports U.S. interests in the region,” the letter sent Monday said. “The economic aid offered by the United States seems predetermined and based on insufficient analysis… To put it simply: American economic aid is insufficient.”

The ambassadors made it clear that the United States “has been, is and will continue to be our first and most important ally” but also that “the governments we represent cannot count on a positive outcome of what has been presented” in the negotiations.

“The gaps between the needs of our peoples and what has been offered have narrowed, but are far from being closed,” the letter said.

The impacts of the climate crisis are being keenly felt across the Pacific, including the North Pacific countries of Palau, FSM and the Marshall Islands. A World Bank report last year found that 40% of buildings in Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands, would be permanently flooded and entire islands would disappear, based on projections of rising sea levels. the sea one meter.

“Our remarks may sound impassioned, but the main point is that this [climate change] is our hottest and most important topic,” the ambassadors said in the leaked memo. “We are unable to solve climate change and unable to meet the education and health needs of our citizens unless and until these negotiations are concluded, and concluded in a manner that meets truly to our development needs.”

Richard Clark, press secretary to President David Panuelo of the Federated States of Micronesia, said the FSM sees the United States, Palau and the Marshall Islands as “family”.

“We are a healthy, functioning family, and we discuss sensitive issues internally with candor because we have no doubt that we have each other’s backs collectively,” he said.

Palau’s president, the Marshall Islands’ foreign minister and the US National Security Council could not immediately be reached for comment.

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